OKEECHOBEE, Fla. (CBS12) — A year into the coronavirus pandemic, a concerning number of students in South Florida still can't get reliable WiFi for school. The digital divide remains worse than ever, experts said.
The pandemic is revealing the stark disparity between students with internet access at home and those without. But Okeechobee city officials are getting free wifi to students in a creative way.
Seven new towers of WIFI hotspots, which stand 12-feet tall, were installed in city parks throughout Okeechobee. Okeechobee City Administrator Marcos Montes De Oca said the new infrastructure is rucial for the concerning number of families in Okeechobee without internet.
"They look like the street signs with a solar panel on the top," Montes De Oca described.
He's a father of four school-age kids. He believes students without internet are missing out and could be falling behind.
"Our resources out here in Okeechobee are a little bit more limited," said Montes De Oca. "We knew the need wasn’t going to end even after COVID."
So he and other city leaders used close to $40,000 of CARES Act money to bring free public wifi to Okeechobee students.
"In Okeechobee, we will focus first on the 85% of our students in schools who qualify for free or reduce lunch which may not have an ability to have Internet," said Montes De Oca.
Recent data show a similar digital landscape across the country. Federal Communications Commission statistics show one-third of American homes don’t have high-speed internet, and the digital gap has become damaging for school-age kids whose grades are suffering.
"School board members have done surveys and we contacted folks and we don't want children to fall behind," said Montes De Oca.
For now, parents hope in Okeechobee, these hotspots are a solution.
"Think about a very strong cellular connection," said Montes De Oca. "So it’s like your phone but on steroids."
The city administrator says the hotspots should be up and running early next week.
Up to 26 people at a time can tap into the wifi connection coming from the hotspots.